How to Listen to Jazz, Part II
“ While the [Seventies] is primarily remembered as a time without quality control, one of the most embarrassing eras in America's history, Fusion was in no way responsible for the ridiculous polyester clothing or goofy white-guy Afros. ”
It may come as a surprise to the newcomer that Jazz isn't one specific type of music that all sounds pretty much alike. It's not all piano and saxophone any more than all movies are about teenage vampires or thirtysomething single woman navigating the sometimes stormy waters of relationships all while simultaneously maintaining their independence and keeping a watchful eye on their biological clocks.
Jazz encompasses all sorts of wildly different types of music. It can be acoustic or electric, played solo or in groups of almost any size. It can rock (or, as we call it, swing) harder than Led Zeppelin, or softer than Dan Fogelberg. It can be played on almost any instrument, or by almost any combination of instruments. Got a tuba, a glockenspiel, two French horns and a zither? Brother, you can still make jazz.
With this much variety, it might be overwhelming to the JazzNoob® to even know where to begin. You may have discovered jazz by hearing some Miles Davis because you somehow found yourself in a Starbucks trying to order a regular damned cup of coffee and why can't they just call a large a large?
While waiting in line and trying to decipher whether the waitress's many tattoos constitute some sort of coherent theme or are just a random collection of whatever she was thinking at that moment, you decide that if this is what jazz is then you might just give it a try. So you head on over to Barnes and Noble and tell the clerk in the CD section to give you some jazz with trumpets in it. Peering over his retro-hip Buddy Holly glasses, he sizes you up, then goes over to the stock and returns with a Chris Botti CD. You pop it into your car stereo and prepare to enjoy some more of that jazz music you've just discovered that you like. Needless to say, what you hear isn't what you heard.
So you go down the road to that hip little buy-sell-trade CD store and tell the clerk you want some jazz featuring the trumpet as the lead instrument, all while trying to stifle your giggles because her ultra-red dyed hair makes her look like a Muppet. She twists her nosering thoughtfully, then goes over to their minuscule jazz section and returns with a Louis Armstrong CD.
Better. Great, even. But that's not it either.
So you return to the Starbucks and ask the clerk what jazz music with trumpets was playing about 45 minutes ago. She stares at you blankly, as though you've just asked her who led the Federal League in batting in 1914 (Benny Kauff, Indianapolis).
"That was 'So What,' by Miles Davis. It's on Kind of Blue." says the barista with the gray ponytail. "We've got the Legacy Edition for sale over there."
And there you have it. In the process, you've discovered that you like Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong. You've also learned that venti means "large." You've learned that a $4 cup of coffee doesn't necessarily taste better than a $1 cup of coffee. And you've learned that if you ever need to know anything about jazz, ask a grown-up.
So what now? You could go out and buy all the Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong CD's you can find. You will soon find, however, that they're not all created equal. Miles not only played several different kinds of jazz, he invented a couple of them. Louis ran the gamut from the blistering "Maple Leaf Rag" to the mellow "What A Wonderful World." How can you tell what you're going to like based on what you already know that you like?
It might be helpful to know that much of Our Music can be categorized into several distinct schools. And by schools, I mean something more akin to a school of thought than an actual bricks-and-mortar school. Though schools do teach jazz, they teach the existing schools that were largely developed independently of the schools that now teach them.
Still with me, kids?
Thinking, then, in terms of the various schools of jazz, that Louis Armstrong CD you liked is from the Hot school. Hot jazz (also known as Dixieland, when being played mostly by Caucasians) developed in New Orleans after the turn of the last century. A rollicking, kinetic, good-time music developed to keep America's mind off the coming unpleasantness of World War I, Prohibition, and that lurid Fatty Arbuckle scandal.
The popularity of Hot Jazz brought it to the attention of American popular culture. The Swing (or, Big Band) era saw jazz repurposed as a dance music for larger venues and, in the days before electric amplification, the only way to increase the volume was the increase the number of musicians. Unfortunately, this also meant that much of the freedom and spontaneity from the smaller combo days had to be curtailed. You can't have a large group of musicians just playing whatever the hell they feel like; just hang around a high school band room before a rehearsal.
Though it is not held in as high of a regard by jazz aficionados now, because it was the top-forty of its day and is seen as lacking the artistic integrity of the jazz before and after it, Swing is still pivotal to the jazz that comes after.
Newton stated in his Third Law of Motion that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Whether or not this had anything to do with the invention of those appalling Raspberry Newtons as a reaction to the perfectly acceptable Fig Newton is for you to decide.
What I'm saying is.
Musicians who found their only lucrative outlets playing in the dumbed-down confines of the predominant big bands of the day would often meet for after-hours jam sessions. Home canning was still considered a worthwhile pastime in those days, and the resultant preserves were often used for the good of down-on-their-luck musicians.
For anyone who has ever made their own jam, you know what a time-consuming, labor-intensive process it can be. For that reason, these sessions attracted large numbers of musicians who, naturally enough, would pass the time while waiting for the various processes to complete by playing their instruments.
Unfortunately, these jam sessions drew all sorts of musicians of varying skill levels. For the musicians who were using these sessions as a cathartic to release their frustrations, dealing with lesser-talented players only enhanced their frustration. In response, musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker began devising breakneck chord changes and blistering solo runs to weed out all but the most hale and hearty of the bunch. Not only did this result directly in the creation of a new type of jazz called Bebop (or Bop, to its friends), the boldness inherent in its approach also led to such exotic jam flavors as Blueberry Habañero and Red Pepper Papaya.
As much as Bebop was a reaction to Swing, there came in its wake a variety of reactions to Bop itself. Miles Davis invented cool jazz while trying to make a classic mint jelly as an answer to the increasingly complex jams of the Bop set (and also, to go with his famous butterflied leg of lamb). Art Blakey developed Hard Bop as a more accessible, melodic answer to the daredevil displays of pure technique that had come to dominate the jazz scene (Scene 5, near the end of Act II).
The Sixties brought a seismic change in American culture, and jazz reflected that shift in a variety of ways. Besides the ridiculous clothing and circus-clown-on-peyote hairstyles, there was the rise in prevalence of both Free jazz and Fusion. Free jazz ushered in the decade with a promise of abstract, unrestrained expression. Fusion, invented by Miles Davis to get himself in on the staggering amount of leg being scored by lesser-talented pop stars, merged jazz sensibilities with rock instrumentation.
Fusion ruled the Seventies, a fact which should not be held against it. While the decade is primarily remembered as a time without quality control, one of the most embarrassing eras in America's history, Fusion was in no way responsible for the ridiculous polyester clothing or goofy white-guy Afros.
The Eighties is where things start to get complicated. Besides all the skinny ties and that whole New Coke debacle, jazz found itself at a crossroads. Fusion had given birth to a bland, inoffensive genre known as Smooth Jazz which found popularity among people who think that Taco Bell is authentic Mexican cuisine. Neo-traditionalists resurrected Bebop and its subgenres. Electronic instruments, pasty white British people, a new breed of recreational pharmaceuticals and modern urban influences combined to create Acid Jazz.
Things have only grown more complicated as the decades have rolled on. The boundaries of jazz have spread beyond the established schools, expanding to include the possibility of unwashed quasi-hippie jam bands. And the disruptive effect of the digital revolution have changed the rules of both content creation and delivery.
By which I mean.
Back in the old days, before the Internet, before the iPod, music was purchased from a bricks-and-mortar store on some form of physical media and your choices were limited by the arbitrary decisions of monolithic recording companies. Now, individual artists can record and distribute their own work without an intermediary.
This brings about a good news/bad news situation. The good news is that more music is available than ever before. The bad news is that it can be harder to find, and has not been through the vetting process that once not only separated the wheat from the chaff but also some of the wheat from the wheat. But, it remains an unfortunate truism that some unheard music deserves to stay unheard.
Which brings us to more good news. The same Internet which allows virtually unlimited content distribution also provides the wherewithal to gather, sort and review this content. Websites such as, say, this one, are a perfect source for both discovering Our Music and finding out where to see it live. And hilarious, well-written, self-congratulatory articles such as, I dunno, this one can provide you with insight into the various types of jazz (see above).
Which brings us to.
Now that you know how to listen to jazz, and where to find it, there comes the larger metaphysical question of why to listen to jazz. Why deliberately seek out a music that, by its own choice, lacks pop culture appeal? Music that will not be heard on American Idol, will not be performed by pubescent TV actors seeking to make the largest possible flash in their allotted pans, and will not be blasted by ridiculous carloads of lilywhite college dinks who are about as urban as an IKEA store?
I probably just answered my own question, but next month (or whenever the hell I get around to it), Your Own Personal Genius will explore that question in depth. Either that, or a daring exposé uncovering the rampant use of performance-enhancing drugs in jazz. Can the same stuff that gave Barry Bonds that gigantic Pez dispenser head help the average jazz cat swing harder? Stay tuned to this URL for the shocking truth.
Till next month, kids, exit to your right and enjoy the rest of AAJ.